It seems that every time someone asks me about which camera to buy the word “megapixel” comes flying out of their mouth. It’s as if this mysterious megapixel is some sort of end all be all in camera conversations. If the camera has more megapixels it’s obviously better, right? Camera companies and their marketing departments have tried exceptionally hard to get people to believe this, and it has apparently worked. The fact is most people aren’t really even sure what a megapixel is, or how it relates to image quality.
First we need to understand a few things. In the print industry a professional quality print is typically 300dpi which is the resolution and means that there are 300 dots printed per inch. This is the standard for something viewed up close, meaning anything viewed from 2 feet or less. As you get farther away from the image less dpi are required for the image to appear clear to our eyes. However if you print something at a lower resolution it will look fuzzy up close, so keep that in mind when you’re ordering prints. This was a very brief crash course on DPI and printing resolution and should give you enough understanding for us to continue talking about the main subject here, megapixels.
A megapixel is defined as a graphic unit of resolution equivalent to one million pixels or exactly 1,048,576 pixels. This means that the width of the image multiplied by the height of the image equals one million pixels. The iPhone 7 has 12 megapixels while most current point and shoot cameras are in the 18 – 20 megapixel range while current DSLR cameras start at around 18 megapixels and go up from there. This means that the lowest camera resolution currently readily available for purchase (late 2017) is 12 megapixels. But do we really even need 12 megapixels?
To properly answer this question let’s take a look at how many pixels are needed to make a 300 dpi print in common sizes. But first what is a “common size?” In my years of taking photos I have covered many events where I offered prints for sale, including; weddings, engagements, newborn photos, a school semi formal and senior portraits. In all of the sessions I completed not one person, ever, ordered a print larger than 11×14. This also rings true of what I see in peoples homes. Most people have framed photos throughout their home with the most common size being 4×6 or smaller with the occasional 8×10 or 11×14. That’s not to say that people don’t order larger photos but in my experience 11×14 is the absolute maximum that people are going to order.
An 11×14 photo at 300 dpi is 3,300 x 4,200 pixels, or 13.8 megapixels. Drop that 11×14 down to 275 pixels per inch and you have your 12 megapixels. The drop in DPI will likely be noticeable to a keen observer but the average passerby will never notice the difference. Also worth noting here is that you aren’t likely to be staring at an 11×14 from 2 inches away, more likely is you’ll be viewing it from a couple of feet, or more, away which will make the drop in DPI even less apparent.
Does this mean that you should go out and print a bunch of 11×14 images from your iPhone? Or that a standard point and shoot is going to give you the same results as a DSLR? The answer to both questions is “not necessarily.” There are other factors at play that are far more important than resolution, such as sensor size and lens quality that are beyond the scope of this discussion.
In conclusion, megapixels aren’t important for the casual user. If you never intend to print something larger than 11×14 10-12 megapixels should suit your needs just fine. For years I shot with a Canon 40D which has 10 megapixels. All of my paid gigs were shot with that camera and I never had an unhappy customer. I have even printed 20×30 posters for my own personal use with images from that camera and they look great. If I were to make a billboard or some enormous prints for a gallery show I may be more worried about it but for standard sizes 10 megapixels is more than enough to get you by. My advice is to worry less about megapixels and more about the sensor and lens quality.